I was raised on Scorsese films. In Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and others, masculinities are best expressed within the confines of groups (gangs). The group is defined by exclusion – it excludes women, other men who are not its kind, and any other sort whom it collectively decides to exclude. The group is also defined by a complex internal competition for leadership, or at least, to be the boss’s favorite. Identity and masculinity are also tied to the group – you are what you oppose, you are what you exclude.
In Derek Cianfrance’s latest, masculinity is a lone wolf. The first is Luke (Ryan Gosling), a contract stuntman, who at the time of the film knows exactly three people: his partner-in-crime, his ex-lover, and his infant son. Rejected by his father in his youth, he tries to re-connect with this ex-lover and son – awkwardly and unsuccessfully. The second, Avery (a surprisingly touching Bradley Cooper), belongs to a police force, but he really doesn’t belong. The force’s rampant corruption isolates and separates him from them, both morally and physically. He loves his son, but he can’t connect with him either. Even Luke and Avery’s sons, who we meet later in the film, are loners. Avery’s son is the new kid in town, tentatively vying for popularity; he starts an uneasy friendship with Luke’s son, whose opening sequence is of him sitting alone in the cafeteria (their passive-aggressive, highly-strung relationship is as close to Scorsese as we get).
These lone wolves, when they meet in space and over time, fight, not for dominance, but for relevance. They are defined so precisely by the legacy of a fractured relationship with either their father or their son, that when they meet, they don’t know what to do with each other. There is a certain amount of empathy and identification (especially between Avery and Luke’s son), and, occasionally, love. However, they still can’t get along, conflicted by what they want, what they need, and what they won’t get. Fundamentally they want to belong to someone, but they don’t know what that means – there is no benchmark and no definition of those boundaries between the self and others. It’s a very difficult kind of masculinity from Scorsese’s made guys. Like the goodfellas they exclude women even as they love them. But then again, they exclude everyone else.
With a fantastically menacing Ray Liotta, who brings a bit of Scorsese’s mean streets to the bucolic setting.
The Place Beyond the Pines. Dir. Derek Cianfrance. Focus Features, 2012.